PO Box: Taliban

Much awaited opening of Afghan group’s political office in Qatar has stirred peace hopes – and a diplomatic storm.

What’s in a name? Well, if you’re not careful it can cause fissures in alliances, potentially cost billions in aid and result in mass confusion.

The much awaited declaration of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, was welcomed across the globe as a move that will pave way for peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Yet Afghanistan wasn’t among the countries cheering the fighters’ arrival at a formal negotiating table.

President Hamid Karzai took exception to the use of the term “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – a name which reminds Afghans of the days when the Taliban was in charge and which was not cleared with the Taliban’s Qatari hosts.

Qatar’s state news agency clarified that the agreement was to open a political office of the Taliban, not that of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Karzai hit out not only at the Taliban but also at the US and suspended security talks, blaming foreigners interested in advancing only their own strategies and goals. Within hours, his threat seemed to have worked.

US secretary of State John Kerry has had to pick up the phone more than once to assure Karzai that the Afghan government was not being sidelined.

Taliban mission

The Taliban spokesman, for his part, told media that his group wanted to open the political office for five reasons:

1. To talk and improve relations with the international community through mutual understanding.

2. To back such a political and peaceful solution which ends the occupation of Afghanistan, establishes an independent Islamic government and brings true security which is the demand and genuine aspiration of the entire nation.

3. To have meetings with Afghans in due appropriate time.

4.To establish contact with the United Nations, international and regional organizations and non-governmental institutions.

5.To give political statements to the media on the ongoing political situation.

Taken together, they appear like a bold outline for future power-sharing in Afghanistan – and, therefore, objectionable to the authorities in Kabul.

The Karzai government also wants the talks to happen directly without any interlocutors such Pakistan, which played its part in the establishment of the Doha office by freeing Taliban prisoners and allowing others to travel freely to Qatar.

What is noteworthy is that that the Doha office hosts no decision makers but just intermediaries between the Taliban supreme council, the Afghan government and the Americans.

Zero-sum game

As far as the Taliban officials are concerned, they see the latest development as a victory of sorts. After the fall of their government in Afghanistan in 2001, this would be the first open, official acknowledgement of the group’s power base.

The Taliban’s progress naturally poses a diplomatic challenge for the Karzai government. It’s a unique case of one country having two representative offices in a foreign country (an embassy and a Taliban political office).

The Afghan government has to walk a fine line in making sure that its diplomats are relevant in the presence of an influential force capable of affecting the situation at home.

The Taliban does not recognise the Afghan government’s power to veto or amend its decisions. But the group must realise that it cannot wage war and talk peace at the same time for the sake of credibility.

US forces invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban goverment because the group failed to sever its links with al-Qaeda, then operating from Afghan soil, in the aftermath of the September 11, 1001, attacks.

Although a Taliban official has said the group does not wish to harm other countries, it has to work hard to dispel international scepticism.

Deceived time and again

Meanwhile, members of the Afghan expatriate community in Qatar say they have been deceived by so many sides on so many fronts that they don’t know who to trust.

A businessmen told me: “We want peace at any cost and whoever can bring it. Our generations has suffered from the fighting.

“There needs to be an agreement before foreign troops leave. We don’t want to travel back in time – again.”

On Wednesday night, the policemen on guard outside the Doha villa at the centre of international attention said the Taliban office would open in the morning.

US officials have apparently assured the Karzai government that the plaque bearing the words “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, to which it had taken offence, would be removed.

Howsoever shaky and tentative, peace, it would seem, has been given a sliver of chance in war-weary Afghanistan.